Knicks center Mitchell Robinson dunks against the Celtics during the...

Knicks center Mitchell Robinson dunks against the Celtics during the first half of an NBA preseason game at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 9, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

DENVER — As the Knicks assembled for practice in a basketball facility on the outskirts of Denver, there was an addition to the workday. Mitchell Robinson rejoined the team for a full practice session for the first time since shutting down Dec. 8 in Boston and undergoing left ankle surgery shortly after that.

It won’t mean a return to the lineup as the Knicks take on the defending champion Nuggets Thursday, but getting through this workout was an important step as the Knicks head toward the postseason. They are hoping to be in full health for the first time all season.

“Mitch was good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He practiced today. He’s got to go through contact for a while. So then he’s got to get cleared by the doctor.

“It wasn’t extended obviously. But he did shooting, offense, defense, script. Good day.”

And a good problem for Thibodeau, who will soon have to figure out how to fit the pieces together. Robinson was not only the starter at center but being talked about in All-Defensive Team conversations and dominating the league on the offensive glass when he was shut down. But Isaiah Hartenstein has filled in more than capably in his absence. Hartenstein has helped the team to a 41-27 record. The Knicks have yet to have a minute together for what would be anticipated as the regular starting lineup of Robinson, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Julius Randle and OG Anunoby.

Anunoby, who was obtained in a trade after Robinson was injured, returned for two games on this trip from his own 18-game absence after undergoing elbow surgery, but he returned home for an MRI after inflammation surfaced. Randle has been out for the last 21 games and there remains no timetable for his return after he dislocated his right shoulder. But soon the pieces will be together.

“I’d rather come off the bench,” Robinson wrote in response to an Instagram post that pictured a full starting lineup with him in it. “Maybe I can show more.”

Robinson and Hartenstein are close friends, so while competitors, there is no animosity at the other’s role or success. Thibodeau did not commit to a lineup but did seem to be leaning to bringing Robinson off the bench at the start.

“When we get there we’ll make that decision,” Thibodeau said. “But he’s not going to play extended minutes when he comes back. He’s going to build up to that. Both guys have gone back and forth. I didn’t see what he wrote or said, anything like that. But when a guy comes back off an extended injury or time where he’s been out, I think it takes a little bit of time to get that timing back. It probably makes more sense with shorter minutes to do it in that way. We’ll see how it unfolds.”

While Hartenstein was a key to the second unit’s success early in the year, the second unit is completely different from when Robinson got hurt. RJ Barrett would pair with Immanuel Quickley — both traded to Toronto in the Anunoby deal — and Josh Hart, who has been starting in place of Randle and Anunoby.

“There’s obviously going to be a lot of mixing and matching,” Thibodeau said. “So it’s not like it’s going to be all bench guys with no starters. There’s usually going to be two starters out there. We did it quite a bit last year, mixing and matching. One guy would finish one game. The next time it would be somebody else, depending on what we needed. We know all the things that Mitch adds to the team. It’ll be great to get him back. We’re obviously very pleased with what Isaiah has brought. You throw in Precious [Achiuwa] and Jericho’s [Sims] done a good job. We like the depth that we have at that position. That’s been a big plus for us.”

For now, they wait, but Brunson said that Robinson “looked like Mitch,” in practice, and he brings something that will help the team.

“Toughness, obviously rebounding, finishing around the rim, blocking the rim, protecting the rim,” Brunson said. “They’re things he’s been great at his whole career. And so, he brings that to the table and just gives us another element.”


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months